For a varied set of factors, the wildlife, mostly bear and leopard, are moving out of the forests frequently and have added a new conflict to Kashmir, Minhaj Masoodi reports
Bhat Jeelani received input on July 28, about a bear wandering in the Khrew forest range in Srinagar outskirts. He set off with his crew to locate and tranquillize the bear.
This has become a routine for Jeelani and many other staffers in the wildlife department, deployed in the foothills, close to the forests. With wild animal sightings around human habitations becoming frequent, the department has been on tenterhooks for last many years now. They receive uninterrupted calls about the leopards and bears making forays into human dwellings and many a time, attacking and killing people.
The department came under scathing public criticism after a four-year-old girl, Adha Yasir, was taken away by a leopard while she was playing in her lawns. The news dominated the media for many days. The girl’s mutilated body was found a couple of days later. Some unscrupulous elements uploaded the video of her scattered remains to the social media sites forcing an outrage. By the time, the video was taken down, Kashmir had converted into a huge mourning mass.
The department and the district administration of Budgam were then tasked with locating and capturing the leopard. Two weeks later it was caught in premises of none other than the office of Chief Executive of Budgam, the Deputy Commissioner.
Taken Away From Car
However, this was not a one-off incident. A month later, another four-year-old girl, Munazah was mauled to death by a leopard in a Ganderbal village. She was in a car with her grandmother. Seeing the window panes down, a leopard jumped in and snatched her while her grandmother watched helplessly. The girl’s body was later found at a nearby orchard by the police.
In July, in another video that went viral, a group of leopards was spotted wandering on the roadside by two people travelling through a village in Budgam. The woman co-passenger accompanying the driver could be heard asking him to close his window in a very frantic voice. The road had dense vegetation on its side.
“Aes kath junglas manz chi basaan (What jungle are we living in)”, she could be heard telling in a hysterical voice in the video.
There are almost daily reports of bears and leopards descending down from the jungles in search of food and attacking humans and their livestock in the process. Deforestation and rampant clearing of jungles, encroachment of their habitat over the years have played a role in this. With the food readily available in the form of dogs and other smaller animals, the carnivores have started roaming in and around human settlements.
The wildlife department, on the other hand, has found itself caught in the centre of the storm for not actively tackling the rising number of cases. The department, however, in a written reply to the queries said: “There is no sudden spike in the number of wild animal attacks. These attacks take place throughout the world. There have been one or two incidents, like the one in Ompora, Budgam and the other one recently in Ganderbal, in which two minors were unfortunately killed by leopards.”
Blaming the social media for sensationalizing the incidents, the written statement further said, “These days because of social media, every incident gets highlighted and comes into limelight.”
The statement added that the distress and SOS calls are responded to by the department.
“Most of the calls attended by the control room staff are found not to be valid and with negligible evidence of leopard movement,” the wildlife department said. “However, in order to rule out any such possibility, all calls are taken seriously by the department. Also, the people at large are now sensitized.”
As per the data provided by the department, the number of deaths due to wildlife attacks from 2006 to March 2021 is 224. In this period, 2829 people survived injured in these attacks. Compared to 2020, with five deaths and 87 injuries, so far seven people have been killed and 32 have been injured in these attacks in 2021.
According to a study done by the Sher-I-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Soura, about 76 per cent of injuries were caused by mauling by bears between 2005 and 2016. Six per cent were caused by leopards while two per cent and one per cent were caused by red fox and monkeys respectively. In 14 per cent of cases, animals could not be identified. However, the study found that leopard attacks were more deadly with an almost 50 per cent fatality rate.
Dr Aaqib Hussain, who has researched extensively on wildlife in Jammu and Kashmir, said that the primary reason for the spike in animal attacks is habitat degradation.
“Animals have been venturing outside the boundaries prior to these incidents also. But people are now stepping into core areas degrading the ecological balance in these areas,” he said.
During the pandemic, there have been a lot of encroachments, also. Change in land use patterns over the years, climate change and certain other factors have also contributed to the rise in attacks.
“If you take a particular protected area such as Dachigam; some years ago, the only paddy used to be cultivated on the forest fringes. Even if leopards or bears would venture out, paddy was never a feasible food for them,” Aaqib said.
Now people have converted these paddy fields into orchards. “They have planted fruit trees like cherry and apple. It is obvious that black bears would be attracted to the food. It would obviously prefer eating apples over wild apricots, that too in forests,” Aaqib further added.
Easy Food Around
Changing climatic patterns have also led to behavioural changes in the animals. Normally, black bears hibernate from December to April. “Now due to climate change, the bears can be sighted as early as March, ” said Dr Aaqib. “During that time, since food availability is also low, they are attracted towards leftover trash and rotten fruit lying in the orchards close to the forest areas. Trees also provide them cover to hide during the day”.
If people throw trash in their surroundings, Auqib said, why would black bears walk around for food in the forests, climbing trees. “It is an inherent part of animal behaviour, that if an animal is getting food easily, it won’t search for it,” Dr Auqib said. “And how would wild animals know what is a forest area, what is a protected area and what is a human settlement.”
The rising canine population is also being touted as one of the reasons responsible for the increase in the number of animal attack cases.
“Dogs are a delicacy for leopards. If we are not taking proper care of our trash, the dog population will increase, which in turn will invite these forest-dwelling carnivores, causing more problems,” Aaqib explained. “If a leopard finds a dog easily available to eat, why would it want to scour for food in the forests?”
Apart from the bears and leopards, monkeys have also become a menacing presence in and around Kashmir’s hilly areas. A woman living a few kilometres away from Pahalgam (South Kashmir) said her life has been made miserable by monkeys.
“They steal food from our kitchen gardens be it brinjals, gourd, cucumbers, fruits, even rose plants,” she said. “Sometimes, they arrive in droves and cause significant panic among people living here. It has become impossible to live here. They even enter homes and damaged goods inside.”
The same crisis is witnessed on the highway between Jammu and Srinagar where, at a number of places, the monkeys are waiting for the passengers travelling on the road to feed them. This practice evolved in the last 20 years when the passengers, mostly domestic tourists from the plains, on their way to pilgrimage at Vaishno Devi and Amarnath started offering food to the monkeys. It has become now a serious crisis.
The monkey tensions in the Jammu city became a serious issue as the hoards of monkeys would literally invade a cluster of government offices. The government had to evolve a mechanism to keep the monkeys away. By then, however, the costs had gone up.
Wildlife corridors that lined the forest ranges connecting Kashmir to Gurez on one side and Kishtwar on the other used to provide a vital link to the wild animals. However, due to constant anthropogenic pressures and constant human interventions, the traditional routes of wild animals have been either blocked or constricted. This is being seen as the worst biotic intervention that has taken place in the garb of development.
Dr Aaqib said that Gurez-Dachigam-Kishtwar used to be a single wildlife corridor which enabled the wild animals particularly Hangul to migrate from one protected area to another.
“If we talk about the Dachigam area, for example, Brain, Nishat, Khrew, Khonmoh, Wangath, Hangul was a traditional corridor. Dachigam, to Khrew, Khonmoh to Rajparian sanctuary to Kishtwar was another corridor. Routes have been blocked now, habitats have encroached. The animal movement has been hampered drastically,” he said.
The connected ‘protected areas’ used to enable these animals to roam from one area to another in search of food if it was not available. Now that those routes have slowly been blocked due to anthropogenic pressure, the animals are forced to come out through other areas, hence the increased sightings and attacks.
“Hangul used to go to Gurez via Ganderbal. A village popped out of nowhere on its route. Its corridor was blocked. Hangul was then seen trespassing through that village. The village was non-existent 15 years ago,” he revealed.
Another wildlife expert, who talked anonymously, said that every wild animal has a cruising range. “While in the hinterland, the developmental activities disrupted that range, near the Line of Control the fence literally blocked it,” he said. “These are the two facets of the crisis that contribute to the habitat issue. The ‘discovery’ of newer picnic spots like all the meadows in Budgam is actually a habitat intervention so is the case of having picnic spots beyond Pahalgam. How many people were being killed by the wildlife before when Gulmarg lacked a road?”
Many others think that a blanket ban on controlled hunting both in the case of wild animals and stray dogs has added to the crisis. In the decade ending February 2021, the hospital associated with the Government Medical College Srinagar has recorded 58,869 cases of dog bites!
Avoid Mob Mentality
Experts regret that a section of society reacts irrationally when a wild animal is sighted in human habitation. The animal, by all standards, is wild and is unable to make a distinction between jungle and habitation.
But, sometimes, people gather and act like frenzied mobs, try to chase animals with sticks, pelting stones and hooting.
During winters, Dr Aaqib accompanied a rescue team when it got a call about a female black bear being spotted on forest fringes. He saw people pelting stones at her.
Similarly, during another rescue operation in Shopian, a leopard was about to be tranquillized when people all of a sudden started to pelt stones, shouting, hooting, taking it as a form of cheap thrill and entertainment. Three to four people were injured that day.
When a leopard had forayed into Srinagar’s Bagh-e-Mehtab area last year, he was beaten and chased away by people with sticks.
“Sometimes, we forget how bad human behaviour is. During rescue operations, we find it difficult to control the behaviour of “human-animal” rather than the wild animals,” lamented Dr Aaqib. “This is also a factor for the injuries and rising conflict cases.”
Emphasizing the need to change peoples’ behaviours, he said, that many animal conflicts happen outside Kashmir also. “But people there tackle it scientifically. There is proper coordination between various departments and people.”
He said that authorities outside do bio fencing and solar fencing. “We need to follow their lead,” Dr Auqib said. “Otherwise, it is apparent that attacks will increase with time if proper and scientific measures are not taken.”
Jalaludin Baba, a wildlife filmmaker said that apart from the known reasons, the presence of security pickets and camps within core jungle areas also contributes to attacks in their own way. He said that there has been a privacy intrusion of wild animals because of this.
Being a conflict region, security camps are a perennial presence on mountain areas, some of which fall under the eco-sensitive zones and protected areas.
“Black bear lives in Dachigam. When you have military huts in the midst of the jungle, it is natural that the bear will feel his space is being encroached upon,” Baba said.
“There is a Border Security Force Camp (BSF) camp on Romeo III in Zabarwan. There are 200 people living there. They have domesticated dogs there. Dogs eat the leftover food and in turn attract bears and leopards. They have now gotten used to it. It has led to a change in their behaviour also,” he said.
With alpine trekking and hiking becoming a trend in Kashmir, experts sound caution on the unregulated entry of people into protected areas. Considered as ecologically fragile areas, these belts are highly sensitive and can only manage a load of a limited number of people at a time.
Dr Aaqib called for regulating the number of people entering into ecologically sensitive zones. “It is high time that ecotourism is regulated. We need to evaluate the carrying capacity of these protected areas. The carrying capacity of Dachigam is 100 people. We shouldn’t allow people beyond that number into the area,” he said.
In the midst of all this, the wildlife department has been plagued by the paucity of staff. Even though the department is also doing its bit, it is not enough.
“Some associated departments lack even the basic equipment to tackle these kinds of things,” bemoaned Dr Aaqib. “They don’t have any specialized training to understand animal behaviour in a proper way.”
Bhat Jeelani, who is posted at Khrew forest range said that he and his crew members lack proper equipment. Employed by the wildlife department as casual workers, Jeelani and fellow members form the engine driving the department. They are the frontline respondents whenever calls are received about animal attacks or rescue operations.
Last month, Jeelani and his team while tranquillizing a bear at Khrew forest area had a narrow escape. “The bear smashed the window of the building we were hiding in. Had it not been for the iron barriers, he could have entered the room and killed us,” said Jeelani.
Prior to that, the bear had jumped over the trap cage and injured one casual worker while Jeelani narrowly saved himself by hiding behind a tin sheet. “But, once he was tranquillized, the permanent employees stayed back. Only casual labourers moved forward to capture the bear.”
Mostly armed with helmets, stairs and some torches, Jeelani and his fellow workmen are on call 24 x7. “Me and my boys don’t know the difference between day and night,” he said.
“In last week of July, we captured three leopard cubs at Meej, Pampore at 11:30 in the night. While we were out there running after cubs, trying to capture them, the forester accompanying us, went into a house to rest and drunk tea leaving us to do the job on our own,” he further added.
However, the officials at the wildlife department said that they always work in tandem with other sister departments and ensure the safety of their staff while dealing with wild animals.
“Orders for latest tranquillizing guns and other equipment have been placed and the staff dealing with such incidents is well trained,” read their reply.
The officials at the wildlife department said that they are continuously visiting the vulnerable areas in order to ensure that animal attacks don’t recur.
“Measures like the establishment of permanent/temporary camps at various places have been set up. The department has intensified patrolling, established 24 wildlife control rooms, fixed cameras, conducting drone surveys and has launched awareness drives to minimize the risk of attacks,” officials said.
The Kashmir forests being of alpine nature have very few wild fruit trees. The reforestation being undertaken from time to time is also used to plant alpine plant species such as Deodar, Fir, Acacia etc.
Baba said that animals like bears are unable to find food in absence of any fruit trees and are forced to venture into human habitations.
“A lot of bears eat fruits and herbs and they don’t find anything to eat there,” Jeelani said. “The department is also planting fruit trees in the wild to ensure that bears don’t come out of the protected zones and food is readily available to them.”
“This,” he added, “will help mitigate the attacks to some extent.”
Zakia Qurashi contributed to this report